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Painted on a window in Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School are the words: “We believe it's our responsibility to prepare students for work and life in the 21st Century.”
Despite that goal, if you asked students what it takes to buy a house, save for a car, pay for college, know their credit score, plan for retirement or explain why they should be saving money now, just as at any high school, you might be faced with blank stares.
“In school, you don't learn these kinds of things,” admits Tesslyn Arrighi, 17, a junior from Bridgewater.
Tesslyn is one of 107 students who enrolled in the Financial Literacy and Giving (FLAG) Program, a seminar offered by Bridgewater State University and Bridgewater Credit Union to teach students financial life skills.
Begun for BSU students in 2010, the program has been extended to the high school for the first time. Administrators expected about 50 students might show an interest, but the response was overwhelming – there even is a waiting list – and the timing was perfect for the high school.
“We are graduating students, unfortunately, that are financially illiterate, instead of being [financially] literate,” said Angela Watson, the high school's principal.
She said she wanted to fix this problem, but the school district didn't have the money to teach financial literacy. The FLAG program became the perfect solution, coordinated between Ms. Watson and Susan McCombe, BSU's director of University and Community Partnerships.
“The response was wonderful. I couldn't believe how many students signed up,” said Dr. Margaret Brooks, professor of economics, who runs the program at BSU and at the high school. “A lot of what we teach is not just knowledge, but a skill.”
Dr. Brooks has scheduled business people from the area, along with BSU professors, to teach the weekly seminar.
“We've been providing a financial literacy program, non-credit, to our students, and about 30 students per semester have come through our program,” she said. “It's really valuable to students who don't ever take economics classes or finance classes necessarily, but who can benefit from the life skills that are provided in the seminar.”
Tesslyn and fellow junior, Nicholas Whittemore, 17, also of Bridgewater, admit that they don't get much basic financial help even from their own parents. It's typically not a topic of discussion at home, as they are encouraged to worry more about school. But the program has taught them the importance of getting a handle on their finances.
“I feel like I need to know the things that are being taught,” said Nicholas. He said he didn't know when he'd ever be able to take this kind of course. So far, he said, the seminar's emphasis on saving money has had the most effect.
“You want 20 percent of your income to be saved and not touched and that's a good goal to work toward, and we just saw a stat where if I started saving money right now and put away $200, by the time I'm 67, ready to retire, I'll have $1 million. That was pretty eye-opening for me.”
Recent speakers have included Jane McCarthy, a broker/Realtor with Wheel House Real Estate of East Bridgewater, who explained about interest rates, credit reports and gave an enlightening look at what it takes to buy a house. Also Dr. Shannon Donovan, a BSU accounting and finance professor, advised students on the importance of paying themselves first as they start to earn income.
Other teachers in the program include BSU economics professor Dr. Ilter Bakkal and Katie Vågen from BSU's Career Services; and from Bridgewater Credit Union: Kevin Burns, senior vice president, David Wolohojian, vice president, and John Himmel, vice president, all of whom will address banking issues.
In addition to lectures from guest speakers, students have broken into smaller groups. On April 17, the final day of this year's program, their groups will present skits, demonstrating randomly selected financial topics, said Dr. Brooks, who has taught at BSU since 1984 and heads the Center for Economic Education.
Bridgewater Credit Union, which provides the program with $10,000 in addition to the BSU Foundation's $5,000, started getting involved in 2011, after recognizing a need for young people to better understand finances, said Theresa Heffernan, BCU's marketing coordinator. Lack of basic financial knowledge is a nationwide problem, she said, adding that the program might have a trickle-up effect as they take the information home.
“I know every time I get to sit in on one of the classes with Professor Brooks, I always take away something from it that I didn't know before, and I work in the industry,” Heffernan said. “... It's mostly the number of questions students ask that let you know it's important to them. It's stuff they're experiencing every day and have a lot of questions about.”
Dr. Brooks says she is encouraged by the response and hopes eventually that the program will be expanded. “There's a lot of excitement there,” she said, “so I'm looking forward to work with the students.”
Tesslyn Arrighi said that if she learns one thing from the course, it would be this: “How to manage my money. How to manage it well, so I don't go broke and so I can have a good future.” (Story, photos and video by Steve Ide, University News)